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Legal twist wrenching family apart

By Katie Warchut

Publication: The Day

Published December 29. 2009 4:00AM   Updated December 29. 2009 4:26PM
Tim Martin/The Day
Linda Pfeiffer and her husband David, entertain their adopted two-year-old son Darius, in their New London home, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009. The couple awaits a court appeal decision concerning their custody battle with their adopted daughter Reylani, to her biological mother.

Their young daughter completes each of the family portraits that cover the wall.

In one, the four have their backs to the camera, showing off their Celtics jerseys - the only team the parents can agree they will all root for.

In another, their daughter stands next to her sitting brother, her fine, curly blonde hair a perfect contrast to his dark mop of locks.

But though they can see her in photographs, hang her Christmas stocking and cover themselves in a blanket made of her pajamas, Linda and David Pfeiffer can no longer hold their adopted daughter, Reylani. And they might never again.

In a rare legal twist, the Pfeiffers lost custody of Rey, who is now about 22 months old, to her birth parents on March 30. They appealed the decision in October to a panel of three judges and are awaiting a decision.

"I can't sleep because I still miss her," said Linda, a teacher and coach at New London High School. "I have to believe (her birth parents) can't sleep because they know the truth. I hope the truth wins."

With an adopted son, Darius, now almost 2½, the Pfeiffers weren't looking for a baby. But a family friend in Florida was pregnant and not in a position to care for her child.

The Pfeiffers, who consider their friends, co-workers and students part of their extended family, knew they had to help.

They met with an attorney so the birth parents could sign a termination of parental rights. They took time off from work to stay in Florida, waiting for the paperwork to go through until they could take the baby home to New London.

But two weeks after they got back, Linda received a text message from the birth mother saying the biological father might be a different man. The newly identified man filed a paternity suit in Jacksonville Circuit Court and confirmed his paternity with a DNA test.

According to Florida law, an unmarried biological father must assert his claim of paternity by filing the Florida Putative Father Registry Claim of Paternity form anytime prior to the birth.

Normally, if the biological father did not file the form, he would have no case. But in his suit, the child's biological father, who is in the Navy, is arguing he should retain his rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The act allows service members certain legal protections, such as breaking residential leases to go on active duty.

The Pfeiffers' Florida lawyer, Mark Miller, is countering that the law does not void the requirements of the father registry, nor does it give extra rights to service members. The Pfeiffers also say the biological father knew the mother was pregnant and was not at sea during the pregnancy, meaning he could have asserted his paternity before the adoption.

The birth mother, who had signed away her parental rights, has since married the biological father.

An uneasy meeting

Several days after the judge awarded custody to the birth parents in March, a child psychologist recommended that, rather than simply handing Rey over, both sets of parents arrange a transition period for her.

And so, for Rey's sake, the Pfeiffers had to invite the couple, whom they had just fought in a custody battle, into their home.

Linda cooked Easter dinner, and all of them took Rey to the playground and out for ice cream.

"And they're kids," she said of the birth parents, shaking her head.

David Pfeiffer, who testified at an all-day hearing in Florida, said he struggled with opening up his family to the people who would take his daughter away.

"It was in (Rey's) best interest, but I felt bad about myself for having them here," he said. "It was the ultimate sacrifice. We loved her that much."

David, a social worker at the Waterford Country School, said the legal expenses are a burden, and he hopes they don't take away from what he and Linda can give to their son.

But more than the money, he said, he is "incredibly angry at what it's cost my family emotionally."

Once Rey left, the parents watched Darius, whom they affectionately call "D" or "Dee-dee," run up to babies in public saying "Ya ya" - the name he called his sister - and try to hug them, Linda said.

"He's too young to be able to express his feelings," she said.

Linda counts the days since Rey left and says the most difficult part has been being cut off from her life.

They visited Florida in June but were turned away by the couple. Linda still sends text messages and e-mails to the parents every day, but never hears back.

They feel as if their lives are on hold, and Linda took leave from the jobs she loves, coaching softball and basketball.

Linda still tells people they should adopt children, especially since getting their son was such a positive experience. But she fears a small part of her that has doubts could beat out her support for adoption.

She said she's lost her faith in the justice system. She feels guilty she let so many people get involved in Rey's life, only to have to experience her loss.

And though the Pfeiffers got much support from family and friends, after a while people stopped asking about Rey, Linda said, which hurts in its own way.

Despite it all, they say they wouldn't change having had Rey in their family for about a year.

"People just think, 'Well, she wasn't your kid anyway,' and it's not like that at all," Linda said. "She'll always be our daughter, if I never see her again or if I see her in 20 years."

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The back story

In February, Linda and David Pfeiffer of New London were afraid they would lose custody of their adopted daughter because of a paternity suit filed by the biological father.

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